Biotechnology and its Applications

Application of Biotechnology in Medicine


Have you ever come across a diabetic who needs regular insulin injections? Where do you think this artificial insulin comes from? It is a product of biotechnology applications in the field of medicine. Let’s learn about these biotechnology applications in detail.

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Biotechnology Applications In Medicine

You may have already learnt about Recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology. This biotechnology application is very important in healthcare because it allows for the mass production of safe and more effective medicines. It also prevents undesirable immune responses which are common with medical products from non-human sources.

Currently, about 30 recombinant therapeutics have been approved for human use worldwide, and 12 of these are presently being marketed in India. Let’s take a look at some of the applications.

1) Genetically Engineered Insulin

Earlier, diabetes was treated using insulin from the pancreas of slaughtered pigs and cattle. Do you think this insulin causes any side-effects in humans? Yes! Insulin from animal sources induces allergies and other unwanted immune reactions in humans. This is why there was a need to isolate human insulin. Is there a way to do this? What if we can use bacteria to produce human insulin? Not only can we grow bacteria in large amounts, but we can also mass-produce human insulin!

Insulin consists of two short, polypeptide chains – chain A and B, linked via disulfide bridges. Insulin is produced as a ‘prohormone’ in mammals (including humans). This prohormone has an extra peptide, the C peptide, which needs to be removed to give rise to mature insulin.

Biotechnology applications

Maturation of Insulin.

The major challenge while generating human insulin is to assemble insulin into its mature form. An American company called ‘Eli Lilly’ overcame this hurdle in 1983. They prepared two DNA sequences that correspond to the A and B chains of human insulin. They then incorporated these sequences into plasmids of E. Coli to generate insulin chains. Further, they produced the chains separately, extracted and combined them by creating disulfide bonds to give rise to human insulin.

2) Gene Therapy

If a child is born with a genetic defect, is there a way to correct that defect? Yes, there is, with gene therapy! Gene therapy is a biotechnology application involving a collection of methods that can correct a gene defect in a child or an embryo. It involves inserting a normal gene into the person’s cells or tissues to compensate for the non-functional gene. Let’s understand how this works.

In 1990, the first clinical gene therapy was applied to treat a 4-year old girl with a deficiency in the enzyme adenosine deaminase (ADA). This disorder is due to the lack of the gene for ADA, which is an enzyme important for the function of the immune system. Bone marrow transplantation helps cure this disorder in some cases. Enzyme replacement therapy, which involves injecting the patient with functional ADA, is also effective in some cases. However, both these procedures are not completely curative.

In gene therapy, blood lymphocytes of the patient are grown in a culture outside the body. Subsequently, a functional ADA cDNA is incorporated into these lymphocytes and re-introduced into the patient. This alleviates the symptoms of the disorder. However, the patient requires periodic infusions of these genetically-engineered lymphocytes, since these cells are not immortal. A permanent cure for this could be to introduce the gene producing ADA from marrow cells into cells at early embryonic stages of life.

3) Molecular Diagnosis

We all know that early diagnosis of a disease is important to effectively treat the disease. Early detection is not possible using conventional methods like serum and urine analysis. Let’s look at some biotechnology applications that help in early diagnosis of diseases.

i) Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)

Normally, we can detect a pathogen (bacteria, virus etc.) only when the disease symptoms start to appear. However, by this time, the pathogen concentration in the body is very high! Is there a way to detect pathogens at initial stages of the disease when their concentrations are low?

Yes, using a technique called PCR. PCR involves amplification of the nucleic acid in the pathogen allowing us to detect the pathogen at very low concentration. Today, we use PCR routinely to detect HIV in suspected AIDS patients and to detect gene mutations in suspected cancer patients.

Biotechnology applications

Steps in Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) [Source: thebalance]

ii) Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA)

The basic principle of ELISA is antigen-antibody reactions. ELISA can diagnose infections by detecting the presence of antigens (proteins of the pathogen) in the patient serum or by detecting the antibodies produced against the pathogen.

iii) In Situ Hybridisation

This technique involves tagging a single-stranded DNA or RNA with a radioactive molecule (probe). This then hybridizes with its complementary DNA in a clone of cells. On detection using autoradiography, the clone with the mutated gene will not appear on the photographic film because the probe is not complementary to the mutated gene.

Solved Example For You

Q: Which of the following techniques is based on antigen-antibody reactions?

  1. rDNA technology
  2. ELISA
  3. PCR
  4. Gene therapy

Solution: The answer is ‘b’. ELISA is based on antigen-antibody reactions.

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